Let's get this straight

Trump Is Horrible But He's Not a "Lunatic" (as Far as We Know)

A New York Times op-ed makes clear we still don't know how to talk about mental health.

Roni Jacobson

Isaac Brekken / Getty Images

Trump's mental health has been speculated about ad nauseum since before and after he became president—a trend that will probably continue for the near and long term future. Psychologists have wrestled with speaking about the subject. Trump is certainly a unique figure in history, and there's reason his psyche would be of interest to the nation, so the topic is fair game to write about. But there's a right and a wrong way to do it, and Thomas Friedman's latest column in the New York Times is the wrong way.

In the article "Trump: crazy like a fox or just crazy?" Friedman wants to know if Trump is "crazy," "nuts" or has a "psychological condition." "I don't ask that question as a doctor," he writes. "I don't do medical diagnoses. I ask it as a newspaper reader."

As a newspaper writer with a very large and respected platform, Friedman probably should have consulted the Associated Press Style book before publishing his column. The AP cautions: "Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced." And "Do not use derogatory terms, such as insane, crazy/crazed, nuts or deranged," unless they are part of an essential quotation," as well as "Avoid interpreting behavior common to many people as symptoms of mental illness." All of which Friedman does throughout the piece. "Is this a political strategy unfolding or a psychiatric condition unfolding?" Friedman writes. "I don't know—but it tells me that absolutely anything is possible in the next 100 days—both good and bad. Trump is clearly capable of shifting gears and striking any deal with any party on any issue."

Here's the thing: Flip-flopping isn't a symptom of mental illness. In fact, it's kind of politicians' MO. It's why the elder Bush didn't get reelected. Even Obama went back on his word a number of times. Lying is pretty common among politicians, too. No doubt Trump is impulsive, as Friedman also describes. But so are lots of people, with and without mental illnesses. Impulsivity alone is again, not a symptom. "Shifting gears" and being able to strike a deal with anyone — I believe that's called pragmatism (not to endorse the deals Trump is making).

All this adds up to: Friedman is scared. "As for the next 100 days, who will protect us?" he asks. Presumably he is referring to the "crazy" man in the White House who seems to have a "psychiatric condition unfolding." This sentiment dredges up another stigmatizing and false stereotype about people with mental illnesses: that they are dangerous, something the AP also warns against doing, noting, "Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness." (Whether Trump's speeches or tweets incite people to commit violence is a separate issue, something Friedman does not discuss in the piece).

Friedman doesn't give a real answer on who will save us, other than not the Democratic party ("too weak"), noting that Trump so far has been "restrained" from his more damaging impulses by outside forces. (We find ourselves picturing a straightjacket, of course.) Nor does he answer his original question posed in the piece: is this a political strategy in the works or a psychiatric condition? That is something even psychologists and mental health care professionals have had a difficult time parsing, of which Friedman quotes none. Nor does he link to any of the many, many other articles that have covered this ground already.

Friedman has been dinged in the past for his sloppy metaphors, but this time his lazy writing is actually harmful, furthering the misconceptions and stigma around mental illness that the media has had a large hand in perpetrating. New York Times Standards Editor Phil Corbett, who does not oversee the language of the Op-Ed section, replied to our query saying that The New York Times stylebook does not have an entry on mental illness (the AP added theirs in 2013), although it contains entries on specific disorders including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that somewhat recall the AP's cautions about not overpathologizing common behavior/painting with too broad a brush and proper sourcing. Other Times editors have not yet responded to our request for comment.

Instead of writing such an insultingly worded article, Friedman could have read one of the many articles already addressing this subject (some better than others), including a nuanced piece also out this week in the New Yorker that deals with the question of mental incapacity, consulting psychologists as well as historians on the subject of presidential mental health and illness, of which there is a surprisingly long record, most recently in Reagan's second term when he was actively battling dementia and "not reading even short documents."

Obviously, covering Trump's unprecedented behavior and mental fitness is of vital import to the nation, and far from off limits. Journalists have a duty to report on it; it's in the public interest. The Columbia Journalism Review came to the same definitive conclusion in an article in February. It's how we cover it that is important. Instead of blithely throwing around overly vague and stigmatizing terms like "crazy," or armchair psychologizing, reporters should seek out expert opinions and attempt to pin down language as precisely and objectively as possible. It's fine and more than possible to question Trump's behavior, as long as we do it without insulting people with mental illness in the process.

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